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Mr. Chaytor : With reference to the Conservative spokesman's invitation to the Select Committee, is it not the case that following the original invitation, which was on the same terms as that to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, there was a subsequent invitation, inviting him to come at a time of his choosing?

Mr. Speaker: Order. We should go back to the main point of the debate. The Select Committee and who gives evidence is nothing to do with the debate.

Mr. Clarke: I agree, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Green: The answer to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) is no. He is—inadvertently, I am sure—seeking to mislead the House.

Mr. Clarke: Let us move on. The main point that I sought to make is that it is critical that the whole House—all parties—faces up to the issues concerning the future of higher education, as the Government tried to do in our proposals.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will give way on that point, then I will make progress.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Given that he is all in favour of information and scrutiny, would he care to tell the House why, in the opinion poll conducted by ICM, 36 per cent. of respondents said that education and schools had got worse under Labour, and the trend over the past three months represents a 17 per cent. deterioration? Is it his fault, or would he care to blame it on someone else?

Mr. Clarke: I do not intend to blame anybody. I intend to debate the higher education question, which I thought the Conservative party wanted to debate this afternoon.

25 Jun 2003 : Column 1069

If we are looking for an authoritative assessment of the alternative proposals, we need to look no further than the report published today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I quote from its press release, which sets out the situation clearly:


meaning the Conservative party and the Government—


that is, the IFS—


That is important.

The press release goes on to state that, secondly,


thirdly,


more students—


and fourthly,


again, the words of the IFS—


Same old Tories.

The press release goes on to say that if the Government's White Paper proposals were adopted, there would be


and


It goes on to explain why. That is an authoritative assessment of the two proposals in terms of distribution and equity.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Apart from the fact that the Secretary of State omitted the middle paragraph, which he might like to share with the House, would he like to clarify his status in the matter today? Was it, for example, the IFS study that persuaded him to change his mind when, in common with five other right hon. and hon. Members who grace the Government Benches, he is a former president of the National Union of Students? Was he wrong then and is he now persuaded, or why is there the difference now?

25 Jun 2003 : Column 1070

Mr. Clarke: I shall come to the National Union of Students, but if the hon. Gentleman would like me to read out the middle paragraph of the IFS document, I shall do so. It deals with financial effects on students and graduates. It states:


The document goes on to make the point that the hon. Member for Ashford made in his speech, that the IFS research indicates that what it calls the "average" graduate would make loan repayments for seven years under the current system, eight years under the Conservative proposals and 10 years under the White Paper proposals. [Interruption.] The figure on my press release is 10 years. Mine is the printed version.

The core point that I make in citing the analysis is that the explicit purpose of the Conservative proposal, as confirmed by the IFS, is to benefit the richest householders, while the poorest householders would be worse off. We should never forget that.

I now come to the National Union of Students. I was very interested—almost flattered—that the NUS was cited in the motion.

What is the NUS's view of the Conservative proposals. The NUS president, Mandy Telford, says:


meaning the NUS—


She went on to say:


Those are the views of the NUS on the Conservatives' proposals, and I find it slightly extraordinary that they cite the NUS's views in their motion as the NUS is so bitterly critical of their proposals.

The truth of the Conservative proposals is that they mean less students, less resources for universities and less independence for universities from the state.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Would my right hon. Friend also agree that a reduction in graduates has an impact on the economy, and that fewer graduates mean that future economic growth will decline rather than increase?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend, characteristically, is correct. That is the situation and that is why the investment in this population is so critical.

25 Jun 2003 : Column 1071

Mr. Rendel: As the right hon. Gentleman has quoted the NUS president, Mandy Telford, he might like to know that, according to the BBC today, she has also said:


Mr. Clarke: She has indeed said that. She has criticisms of the White Paper, as she has made clear. What I wanted to point out as clearly as I could was that her criticisms of the Conservative party's proposals are very sharp and very direct.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): The Secretary of State has just confirmed his view that the more graduates there are the more growth there is in the economy. If that is the case, will he explain why, using his own logic, he wants to restrict the target to 50 per cent.? Why not 60 per cent., 70 per cent. or even 100 per cent.?

Mr. Clarke: The comparisons with other countries are instructive. New Zealand is on 70 per cent., Sweden is on 67 per cent., and Australia and Norway are on 59 per cent. Those are the investments that other countries are making because of the knowledge economy and the world to which we are moving. That is why we have to address the matter.

The key point that has not been appreciated enough in the country and which I want to ram home today is the impact of the Conservative proposals on the number of students. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said it in his subtle way last Monday when he said:


The hon. Member for Ashford was rather blunter on 13 May. He said:


According to The Guardian today, he said:


Michael Fabricant: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Clarke: No I will not.

Michael Fabricant: Why not?


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